Friday, February 24, 2017

Getting to Know: Brandon A. Johnson, Golf Course Architect

No. 12 at Pure Scene G&CC in Kunming, China
American Golfer: When did you start playing golf?
Brandon A. Johnson: I started playing golf when I was 12 years old. I remember going to the now defunct Sharon Golf Club in Charlotte, NC with my friend Brian Munn and paying a measly $3 for nine holes. I dribbled the ball on that hard pan turf for 8 holes. On the 9th tee I realized and commented, “I haven’t whiffed all day.” Of course the very next swing was a total miss but that mind game vs physical game within golf hooked me for life right then and there. When we finished the pro asked what we were going to do next. We didn’t have plans so he let us go around again. We couldn’t wait to return the next day to do it all over again.

To this day, especially when I get to play a special or favorite course, I experience that same excitement and insatiable feeling of just wanting to run right back to the first tee after completing a round. I’m still lucky enough, on a few occasions, to still do that 30 plus years later.

Brandon A. Johnson
AG: Why did you choose a career in golf course design?
BJ: After I started playing golf my dream was to be a PGA Tour player but never developed the game for that. I missed it by a mile but sure had fun trying! (I also wanted to be a rock star but that is another story and aspiration missed by a long shot too!)

I loved watching golf growing up and remember being drawn to the unorthodox but beautiful and bold courses Pete Dye created at Harbour Town and TPC Sawgrass as I tried to study and copy the tour pros swings. That’s when I really began to notice the design and architecture of courses. I used to study my book Courses of the PGA Tour and dream up courses of my own.

I’ve been extremely fortunate to turn my passion for the game of golf, art, architecture, design, and blend them with my love of the outdoors and turn it into a career. I blindly went into Landscape Architecture to pursue golf course design, but in the process realized there was an entire world of really intriguing architecture, history and landscapes to enjoy and explore.

AG: How did you become a golf course designer?
BJ: During my Junior year in the School of Design at NC State University I applied for and got an internship at the PGA Tour Design Services office. That was my first real step to realizing this dream of designing golf courses. I returned for two additional internships with one being a member of the construction crew at TPC Deere Run. After I completed Graduate School I got a position with The First Tee working out of the PGA Tour Design Services office.

Another important experience was completing my fifth year final project at NC State in the golf course design office of Rick Robbins and Associates. My professors arranged for me to be in their office three days per week for the semester. It was a great experience and I owe Rick and his then associate Brian Lussier the world for the time they spent sharing their knowledge and wisdom.

AG: In your opinion, have any design trends hurt the game?
BJ: I always struggled when I heard people talk about how resort, public or municipal courses should be different or “less than” the revered private course.

While well intended to make the product playable to a larger audience, the effort fell short and the result produced a lot of mundane, uninspired, featureless and forgettable experiences that didn’t excite people about the game.

Golf is supposed to be fun, mentally challenging and strategically interesting and I’m a firm believer that great golf course architecture can and should be accessible and experienced by everyone at all facility types and locations.

AG: How can we grow the game of golf?
BJ: Finding more fast, fun and affordable ways to get proficient at the game will help. This needs to happen on a large scale and include all demographics, cultures, nationalities and backgrounds. Golf is such a fascinating game. I hope we can make it accessible and welcoming to anyone who might be interested in participating in what I believe is the best sport, social activity, mental challenge, outdoor experience or soul healing activity.

AG: Do you have a specific design philosophy?
BJ: Yes. Fun!!! We are successful when a player finishes on 18 and can’t wait to step back on the first or 10th tee to go around again for an emergency 9 or 18.

As an architect I strive to do what is “essential” based on the client, site and budget to create fun and inspiring architecture. This could mean finding or discovering golf holes on a choice dunes site and executing very targeted and non-disruptive moves to the natural environment or creating something compelling out of a flat featureless site.

Below are some tenets that I feel “fun” golf exhibits.
- Aesthetics and beauty derived from the strategy of the golf hole
- Meaningful width
- Pin location(s) that influence thinking and a variety of position options off the tee
- Architecture should inspire the best of our personal games and abilities to shine through and tackle to strategic ask of the design
- Evoke emotion through design

AG: Of all the holes you’ve designed, do you have a favorite (why)?
BJ: This is like asking me to pick my favorite child. It is extremely difficult if not impossible to choose just one, because other favorites will be left but I do have a handful of top picks. As with each course, each hole has a special piece of you put into it.

#11 Old Tabby Links – Spring Island
Options abound here with a reachable Par 4 tee or a longer tee option.

#5 Old Tabby Links – Spring Island
A new green and subtle but effective changes in the fairway enhanced the beauty and strategy of this golf hole.

#12 Pure Scene Golf and Country Club, Kunming, China
When we had to change the original plan during construction and found this gem hanging on the bank of Lake Dianci.

#15 Pure Scene Golf and Country Club, Kunming China
Another one derived from a field change. This Reachable Par 4 incorporates a natural green site on the cliff edge, prevailing wind and width for a fun strategic challenge.

#8 Wexford Plantation
Hard for me to pick just one on this course. I just like the subtle tee shot and second shot strategy on this par 5.

AG: What’s your “dream foursome” (living or dead, golfer or non-golfer)?
BJ: Can we host a tournament??? There too many people to narrow down to just one foursome!
Non-Living – My Dad, Uncle Walt and Uncle Richard. (two of my dad’s four brothers) While my dad supported and encouraged my golf he didn’t really play. Uncle Walt and Richard were avid golfers and I’m sure my Dad would gladly tee it up for this occasion, or at least just ride in the cart like he did on occasion to watch the festivities and joke with us.

Living Golfers – Tiger Woods in his prime … and mine just to see how far away my game is, Greg Norman and Tom Watson.

AG: Is there a “bucket list” location in/on which to design?
BJ: Our project at Castle Stuart checks one of the boxes as it will be an honor and privilege to design and build a course in the home of golf. Since I grew up in North Carolina, Pinehurst has always been a special place to me. Obviously historic golf rich locations like the Monterrey Peninsula, Long Island, New York, the Sand belt of Melbourne, Australia come to mind.

There are some stunning new properties opening up domestically like the Bandon, Oregon coast, the Sandhills of Nebraska and the upper Midwest Michigan/Wisconsin area that are becoming golf destinations. Internationally places like the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and locations in Africa, Asia and South America have wonderful sites that would be ideal for epic golf.

An important element in the established locations or regions are the site attributes. Most are on sandy soils. The access to ocean front, tidal marsh and/or large water bodies makes the experience special. Hopefully I will have the opportunity to share, with the golf world, my interpretation of great architecture on one of these sites.

AG: What is the future of golf course design?
BJ: I believe the future of golf course design is strong. We seem to be in a design revival. Clients, architects and builders are rediscovering and incorporating classic design principals, some with a contemporary interpretation, and executing them in a more hands on approach that make the game fun and exciting again.

We also have an important role to play in showing how future developments can responsibly utilize, protect and rehabilitate the environment and its natural resources through smart, sensible and sustainable design and land planning practices.

If we can continue to focus on these principles the future of golf course design is limitless and will produce the industry’s most fun, interesting and environmentally responsible work yet. I look forward to contributing to that future.

To learn more about Brandon A. Johnson, Vice President and Senior Golf Course Architect at Arnold Palmer Design Company, visit

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